Emotional resilience in expat life: Emotional & Social intelligence and optimism

This is the third in a five-part series by Contributor Linda A. Janssen, who is working on a book about emotional resilience and its importance in expat life.

In the first part of this series, I identified the emergence of six key issues affecting expats living in a highly mobile, genuinely cross-cultural world: identity, the five phases of expat transitions, the five stages of change model, emotional resilience, emotional and social intelligence, and optimism.

We then looked at the issue of identity to expats (who am I, where am I from, where is home), identity development (integrating and resolving differences among how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others) and why they are important (dealing with the pain and loss of people, places and memories that matter).

In the second article we looked at expat transitions and the change model. Third in the series, this article looks at emotional / social intelligence and optimism. These concepts are integral to understanding and developing emotional resilience, and lay the foundation for the last two articles in the series.

Briefly, think of identity development as the important why we need emotional resilience. Emotional and social intelligence skills and optimism are tools contributing to our emotional resilience: they help us with how we handle the where and when we happen to be in out transition phases and the what stage we are going through in the Kubler-Ross change model, all resulting from the turmoil and upheaval of the cross-cultural, mobile expat life we find ourselves in.

Emotional resilience & expats

Resilience is generally defined as the ability to recover from and / or adjust to negative events or significant change.

Emotional resilience focuses not only on the psychological ability to adapt to the challenges, misfortunes and set-backs life throws our way, but also to maintaining or returning to a positive view of oneself during and after such turmoil.

I have come to believe that developing and enhancing our emotional resilience is important for everyone, but becomes absolutely essential to those living overseas.

For an expat, emotional resilience may be tested in the form of dealing with a sudden job transfer due to the weakened state of the global economy; in handling the transition into a new culture and language vastly different than one's own; or in facing a medical crisis while overseas.

Understanding that the universe is not singling us out, that these events happen, and that we are not at fault or in any way deserving of bad news or difficulties - all are part of emotional resilience.

We accept that we will do the best we can under trying circumstances, and we do not berate ourselves over how quickly or well we manage each step in the process. Exhibiting emotional resilience does not mean we will not get upset or overwhelmed at times by what is happening. Instead, we acknowledge these feelings and work our way through them.

The need for awareness of our own and our family members' emotions is the underlying theme of Julia Simens' book Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. Simens outlines the importance of healthy relationships for expat children to develop and thrive, and the benefits of accurately identifying and dealing with their emotions throughout the transition process.

If we do find ourselves or a family member getting bogged down in a sense of overwhelming sadness, helplessness or depression that keeps us (or them) from taking action, we owe it to ourselves and our family members to consider seeking help, particularly from a psychologist or therapist familiar with expat issues.

Emotional Intelligence & Social Intelligence

The term "emotional intelligence" was first coined by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer in 1990; they went on to develop a highly regarded test for emotional intelligence. But it was Daniel Goleman, building on Salovey and Mayer's work and earlier research, that made the field well known with his bestseller Emotional Intelligence.

Goleman has since continued his research and written numerous books on emotional intelligence. In 2006 he introduced another breakthrough book, Social Intelligence, in which he split his earlier definition in two with emotional intelligence being inwardly focused (dealing with ourselves), and renaming the outwardly focused aspects social intelligence (dealing with others).

Emotional intelligence is now generally defined as self-awareness and self-management: identifying, understanding, using and managing our emotions in positive, constructive ways. Social intelligence is considered other-centered: social awareness and social relationships, and engaging with other people in ways that are healthy for all involved.

In order to be emotionally resilient, we draw upon our emotional intelligence. Greater self awareness and being able to manage our emotions contribute greatly to how emotionally resilient we are or can be.

Since part of how we feel about ourselves is a function of how we relate to others (and how they relate to us), it stands to reason that employing our social intelligence can also aid in enhancing our emotional resilience. Similarly, how we relate to others can impact how we feel about ourselves.

Julia Simens makes this important connection between what we or family members are feeling (self- and social awareness) and the need for developing emotional resilience. While she focuses on expat children, her message easily transfers to teens and adults: the importance of identifying the subtle differences among emotions and properly labeling them (and helping family members to do so as well) in order to deal with those emotions, choose our actions, and interact with others in a healthy manner.

The role of optimism

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania is the founder of modern day positive psychology, a branch of psychology focusing on the empirical study of positive emotions, strengths-based character and healthy institutions. Positive psychology has seen significant growth in the past ten years, with central theories in the field continuing to evolve, and theoretical concepts driving new research.

Seligman's seminal book, Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, made a case for positive psychology with the groundbreaking beliefs that optimism (which he defined as reacting to setbacks from a presumption of personal power) can be both measured and enhanced.

In a follow-on book, Authentic Happiness, he demonstrates how positive psychology and understanding the tenets of optimism can help achieve a greater sense of fulfillment. In his most recent book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Seligman puts forward a new theory of well-being based on the concepts of positive emotions, engagement, positive relationships, finding meaning, and accomplishment.

Positive psychology remains a high-growth field with initiatives expanding into other disciplines such as health, education, psychotherapy and neuroscience.

Previous in the series

Identity & the expat
 Transition & Change

Next in the series

 Engendering ER in expats - Part 1
Engendering ER in expats - Part 2
 "Factors" for the emotionally resilient expat

Linda A. Janssen


Linda A. Janssen

Writer, author & expat living abroad and sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd. I chronicle making a new life in NL. Always finding the upside...

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